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Care, Equality & Freedom: What the Atheist-Psychologist Jonathan Haidt can teach us about Christian Apologetics.

by David J. Nixon

A classic scene of British comedy sees Basil Fawlty, before the arrival of some German tourists to the hotel, instructing his staff: “Whatever you do, don’t mention the war”. Of course, things go wrong very quickly! Similarly, we’ve often been told it’s impolite to discuss matters of politics and religion in public, because they start arguments. However, just because they cause disagreement doesn’t mean we can dismiss them altogether. After all, religion addresses the ultimate questions of life, the universe and everything – and politics concerns issues that touch our every day lives (education, health-care, taxation, immigration, etc.).

Furthermore, in light of the open questions of Brexit and Scottish Independence, there is an urgent need for us to be talking about: What kind of society do we want to be? This is not just a political question, but a moral one. There are things that we approve of and celebrate, and there are things that we discourage and condemn. Moral values and judgements stand behind everything from our laws that limit the speed on our roads (because we value peoples’ lives and safety above their freedom to cruise at whatever speed they wish) to our welfare policies for the poor, the disabled and unemployed (because we believe it is right for vulnerable people to receive additional support from the rest of the community). However, moral questions aren’t always so clear cut!

If it ever seems that when people are discussing morally contentious issues (like the beginning and end of life, gender and sexuality) that they are talking past one another or even talking in different languages altogether – it is because they are! They possess different moral visions of the good life and different understandings of what it means to be a good person. But what if we could find a way to discuss our different convictions without being disagreeable and confrontational? Someone who can help us is Dr Jonathan Haidt. As a professor of moral psychology, his work has sought to understand the psychology behind our religious and political disagreements. This article will introduce you to some of the key ideas in his important book “The Righteous Mind” and also indicate how they are helpful for Christians seeking to missionally engage with culture.

In Part 1 of the book Haidt makes the case that human beings are driven more by our hearts (motives, intuitions and desires) than our heads (reason and logic).

“We are emotional actors! We are highly intuitive beings who act first, and justify later. Our beliefs, convictions, and values are far less “rational” than we imagine.”

To illustrate this, Haidt develops the image of an Elephant and its Rider. He says that our emotions/desires/intuitions are like the elephant, while our intellectual reasoning is like the rider perched on top. Haidt’s research suggests that many of our decisions and responses are the gut reactions of our elephant to its surroundings. Our reasoning comes later trying to justify those prior decisions. This will ring true if you’ve ever had a strong reaction against something, but been unable to articulate why you disapprove of it beyond stammering “It’s just wrong – surely everyone knows that?!”

The key take away from Part 1 is that if you want to get people to change their minds, then you need to do more than talk to their Rider with facts and arguments, you also need to appeal to their Elephant:

“The elephant can be steered by the presence of other friendly elephants: Do you want to influence the people who disagree with you? You have to talk to their elephants. The main way we change our minds on moral, political or religious issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs—others must do us that favour. We are good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs. But the interactions must be civil. When discussions are hostile, the elephant leans away and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges. But if there is affection, admiration, and trust, the elephant leans in and the rider tries to find truth in the other person’s arguments. The elephant may not usually change in response to objections from its own rider, but it may be steered by the mere presence of other friendly elephants.”

Part of Haidt’s own experiences as a secular atheist was a change of mind about the value of religion after his experience of welcoming church communities during his field research. As he has said elsewhere: “When your heart is open, then your mind is open”.

In Part 2 Haidt explores the six foundations of morality. The title of his book “the righteous mind” suggests that we are not born into this world as blank slates, but rather all humans come pre-loaded with a package of moral inclinations or “taste receptors”. Here they are expressed in positive and negative form:

(1) Care/Harm: the intuition to maximise peoples’ well-being while protecting them from harm, especially the vulnerable and marginalised
(2) Fairness/Cheating: the intuition to work for justice and equality (whether that is defined by the left as equality of outcome, or by the right as equality of opportunity)
(3) Liberty/Oppression: the intuition to appreciate freedom of choice and freedom from undue external interference
(4) Loyalty/Betrayal: the intuition to be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of a cause greater than oneself
(5) Authority/Subversion: the intuition to respect the wisdom of those who have come before us or in positions of responsibility over us
(6) Sanctity/Degradation: the intuition that some things possess special sacred status and must be protected from contamination (whether it’s the right’s concerns for the sanctity of life, sex and marriage on the right, or the left’s concern for the conservation of the natural world)

Depending on our genes, our environment, our society those moral taste buds will be reconfigured causing us to lean in different directions. For example, Haidt’s research suggests that those who identify as Liberal politically or who are younger generationally will be more concerned with the first three foundations (Care, Fairness and Liberty), while those who are older or more Conservative will be attracted more by the last three foundations (Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity). This insight has huge significance for our cultural engagement today.

An often overlooked aspect of cultural change has been the impact of individualism on the moral landscape of our society. For example, after last year’s referendum on changing the Irish constitution, removing the provision on the sanctity of life from conception – commentators attributed the campaign’s success to the influence of feminism, the rising religious apathy among young people, and the deleterious impact of child abuse scandal on the reputation of the Catholic Church. However, there was little reflection on how the elevation of the individual and their bodily autonomy has resulted in a bias in moral thinking. Today the emphasis is on individual needs (moral foundations 1-3), not on universal sacred principles (foundations 4-6). That is why the appeal to a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body suffocates any discussion about what the moral status of the embryonic human is. Interestingly, as a liberal pro-choice supporter, Haidt would be critical of how this moral bias is also a blindspot that means that contemporary liberal and younger people are impoverished in the resources for engaging in moral discussion and decision (Part 3 of the book considers how “moral binds and blinds”).

Whereas Christian apologists have been talking about the importance of mental worldviews for a long time, it is only more recently we have begun to realise the significance of moral visions. If we are going to persuade people about the truth, goodness and beauty of the Bible on morally contentious matters, then we need to start using our culture’s moral language and concepts as a way in. For example, here are Dr Glynn Harrison’s reflections on the significance of Haidt’s work for discussions about sexual ethics:

“Christians often cave into the sexual revolution because they haven’t understood its moral nature and particularly its reliance on individualistic moral reasoning. They try to rebut its compassion and fairness (moral foundations 1-3) with argument from authority and tradition (foundations 4-6). But in today’s culture, people who possess no language of fairness, or compassion, or equality lose every time. So Christians need to find a language that connects their general convictions to their culture’s individualistic concerns”.

In today’s culture, people who possess no language of fairness, or compassion, or equality lose every time

Glynn also suggests a way forward that takes us back to the example of Jesus: “Jesus integrated justice and compassion for the individual with uncompromising obedience to God’s Word and His moral law”. If we can see Jesus possessed the full moral spectrum as the perfect God-Man – this will then help us find the words and stories to better connect with our culture, showing that Jesus remains surprisingly good news.

#1 Care / Harm
As Jesus declared in word the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God in Himself, He also demonstrated in deed that His rule was good news for those who were poor, suffering, vulnerable and marginalised. Jesus showed compassion as He ministered to the crowds of needy people, taking the time to counsel and heal individuals – He was undoing the effects of the curse and giving previews of what life in the new creation would be like for those who trusted in Him.

#2 Fairness / Cheating
As you listen to Jesus’ teaching, He had lots to say about the justice of God being brought to bear on this world, making wrongs right and holding the guilty to account. It’s often been noted that the person who most frequently spoke about the reality of eternal judgement in hell was the most loving person who ever lived: Jesus. While there are many people who would cheat justice in this world, Jesus makes clear that they will receive their just desserts in the world to come. Also Jesus promised rewards for those who were faithful in His service. I half-wonder if the reason we have two parables about rewards for service (one with equal outcomes and the other with proportionate outcomes) is God’s way of appealing to both the left and right?!

#3 Liberty / Oppression
As you watch Jesus in action, you cannot miss his many encounters with people who were spiritually oppressed by demonic forces, who enslaved and ruined their lives. Jesus demonstrated His divine power and credentials by delivering these captives from their evil oppressors. However, Jesus was not just interested in spiritual oppression, but also social evils. There’s the interesting story about the widow who puts her last coins into the temple treasury who is commended for giving more (all that she had) than the rich people. But many commentators point out that Jesus goes on in context to condemn that temple and its custodians for their systematic corruption and exploitation of people, like this poor woman. There is also the interesting encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus the tax collector, who is himself a traitor and oppressor of his own people. That encounter resulted not only in personal transformation of Zacchaeus but also social restitution and reconciliation as he reimburses all those he stole from.

#4 Loyalty / Betrayal
As Jesus embarks on his journey towards the Cross, He begins to speak more about the cost of discipleship. It entails taking up the Cross and following Jesus, dying to ourselves and our own agendas, so that we might instead live for Him alone. The night before His death, Jesus also graphically taught His disciples about the importance of putting the good of others in the believing community ahead of themselves. As the disciples jockeyed for power and position, Jesus took the posture of a servant and washed their dirty feet – even the feet of the man whom He knew would betray Him only hours later.

#5 Authority / Subversion
As Jesus began His Sermon on the Mount, He explained that what He was saying was not in competition or conflict with the Old Testament Scriptures, but rather His ministry was the fulfillment of all that had been promised. He was not a radical innovator or revolutionary seeking to rewrite things; instead He was fully committed to the Word of God. When Jesus clashed with the traditional Pharisees, this was because they elevated their manmade wisdom over the divine Word of God, and to make matters worse were hypocritical: demanding more from others in terms of obedience than they expected of themselves. Jesus also modelled His own submission to the will and authority of His Father, most notably in the Garden of Gethsemane. The heart of what has gone wrong in this world – sin – is the rebellion of God’s creatures against His authority. Humans have sought to be rulers of their own autonomous kingdoms of self, all the while rejecting God’s authority and His good word. Thus, Jesus insists that repentance is necessary: taking God’s side against sin and submitting to His authority.

#6 Sanctity / Degradation
Asked about divorce and remarriage, Jesus took his questioners back to the story of the first marriage to explain that it is not a man-made idea but a God-given institution between a man and woman. He would go on to explain that sex was a sacred gift (not just another bodily appetite) to be enjoyed within the covenant of marriage – as a picture of the committed love that God has for His people and a preview of the great wedding of heaven and earth, Jesus and His church at the end of history. Being unmarried and celibate all His earthly life, Jesus has shown us that respecting the sacredness of sex does not entail living an unfulfilled and frustrated life.

In summary, how can the secular psychologist Jonathan Haidt help us? For our apologetics ministry, his image of the elephant and its rider reminds us the significance of leading with compassion and concern for people, before seeking to share the arguments and reasons for our hope in the gospel – so they have open hearts and open minds. This what Peter was saying all those centuries ago in the Bible: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Also Haidt’s concept of the six moral taste receptors suggests that to persuade both the elephant and its rider to listen, we need to start with the language and concepts it already finds morally compelling: care, equality, freedom. This is not merely a mercenary tactic, rather we see in Jesus the perfect image of the God of compassion, justice, freedom, faithfulness, sovereignty and holiness. As we are being changed more into His likeness, we will develop a fuller moral palate – not just empowering us to live as good people, but good neighbours and good ambassadors for our Father in heaven.


David J. Nixon

david.nixonis Pastor for Youth and Students at Carrubbers Christian Centre, on The Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s historic Old Town.